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Using Criticism as a Stepping Stone: Bushra Ateeq Ateeq urges women to have self-belief and a healthy attitude towards risk to make successful careers

By Deepa Vaidya

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Bushra Ateeq

If there be an example of how one progressive woman is a force for another, then Bushra Ateeq's journey needs a mention. Ateeq is currently Professor, Indian Institute of Technology - Kanpur and Chair position, Joy Gill Chair, Senior Fellow, DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance, Head, Molecular Oncology Laboratory, Department of Biological Sciences & Bioengineering, The Mehta Family Centre for Engineering in Medicine, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur.

Ateeq's current area of work is to explore the molecular events that drive cancer progression and metastases, identify biomarkers for early cancer detection, and decipher the mechanisms that are involved in therapy resistance. We are exploring the comprehensive mutational landscape of Indian prostate cancer patients representing the entire disease spectrum (indolent localized to aggressive metastatic disease), examining the functional significance of the newly identified mutations, and identifying some actionable alterations (potential drug targets) for these patients. The research has a huge diagnostic and translational potential and provides the foundation for tailored therapies for advanced-stage prostate cancer patients. There are other projects also focused on identifying diagnostic markers and drug targets in colorectal and breast cancers.

She says, "I grew up in a very liberal and encouraging environment, my parents never discriminated between us, sisters and brothers, and our household tasks weren't gender-labelled. I think this kind of upbringing instilled self-esteem and courage in me, which helped me to overcome challenges or barriers that came my way, and not be discouraged by others' prejudices. I truly owe my mother for instilling the right attitude, self-esteem, and resilience in me. She was a working mother and a powerful role model for me, her determination and strong faith encouraged me to follow my dreams no matter what obstacles came my way. It is still quite unheard of for Muslim girls to join the armed forces, but after my graduation, I decided to join the Indian Air Force, which was unexpected, especially coming from an academician's family. Despite the unusual choice, my mother not only supported my decision but accompanied me to the Air Force Selection Board at Varanasi."

Even as a researcher/academician, it certainly wasn't always easy. She says, "I had to face my fair share of challenges, something that anyone starting an independent research career would face and not for being a woman in particular. When I was looking for an independent faculty position in India, during my job interviews at one of the premier institutions, I was told that I don't have an 'academic pedigree', meaning an accomplished academic grandfather. At another premier institution, a senior professor advised me to seek a faculty position at Aligarh Muslim University or Jamia Millia Islamia (perhaps because of my background). Although such remarks were rather unsettling at that time, since I knew what I wanted for myself, those incidents only helped me chase my dreams with renewed zeal."

On the most daring step she took in her career, quoting Rumi she says, "There is a life force within your soul, seek that life. There is a gem in the mountain of your body, seek that mine. O traveler, if you are in search of that, Don't look outside, look inside yourself and seek that." I always follow my heart, and my internal instinct, so there is no such thing as a 'daring step'."

When dealing with challenges, says Ateeq, "I am an eternal optimist and I believe that a healthy dose of challenge whether at the workplace or on the personal front assists in our holistic growth. I think I use both my logical experience-based reasoning as well as empathy, a trait often associated with women, for dealing with my day-to-day chores. I believe being empathetic is a very important quality, especially when you are leading a group of bright young researchers/students, it helps to connect with them and be aware of their emotions and thought processes since the journey of a Ph.D. student is demanding and sometimes full of uncertainties."

Speaking of what success means to her, Ateeq says, "Success for me is the liberty that I do the work that I love, and the positive impact it has on the people around me, that is enough motivation to start each day. Also, I feel truly gratified knowing that my (team's) work may contribute to the betterment of society; this motivates me to work even harder."

Her advice to women looking to make a career in medical research or their chosen field is, "Foremost, you have to believe in yourself and be aware of your value and potential, then everything will fall into the right place. Take up careers that give you a sense of contentment and joy, and do not hesitate to take risks."


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